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The German Way: Sonnie Trotter and Alex Megos in Frankenjura and Elbsandstein

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Alex Megos on Inshalla (VIII/5.11d), Frankenjura. Photo: Andrew Burr

Twenty years ago on Christmas eve, my parents wrapped a large coffee table book and placed it under the tree while I slept. When morning came, I sat with my two sisters under the twinkling lights and peeled back the paper on what would become one of the most influential gifts of my life. At the time, I was a punk teenage kid pulling on pockets at our local grain mill in Ontario, and my newfound hobby had morphed into a full-fledged vertical addiction. What I saw on the book’s cover was a smiling mustached man in blue jeans swinging on the striking limestone of southern France. In bold text it read: WOLFGANG GÜLLICH, A Life in the Vertical. His stories of traveling the world, establishing routes, living in the dirt, driving broken-down cars, climbing everyday, and not knowing where he would end up provided me with an intense connection to a man I would never meet. The book became my bible.

In his early years as a teenager, the young German climber made a name for himself on the bold and runout sandstone towers of the Südpfalz on the western side of the country. He quickly became one of the best climbers in the region and made the first free ascent of Jubilaumsriss (VII-/5.10b) at just 16 years old. He grew up climbing with his family and took quickly to steep, powerful, gymnastic routes, eventually making his global mark on the sport in 1984 when he did the world’s first 5.13d: Kanal im Rücken in Frankenjura. Three years later, he did the world’s first 5.14b, Wallstreet, and then in 1991 gave the sport its first 5.14d with Action Direct. One thing became clear: Güllich was a visionary.

Trotter and Megos walk the streets of Tüchersfeld. Photo: Andrew Burr

Late one night in 1992, while driving between Munich and Nuremberg, Güllich fell asleep at the wheel and drove his car off the road. He died a few days later. Although I never had the chance to meet him, the beauty of climbing is that we can follow in our hero’s footsteps when we visit the crags and climb the routes where they made their mark. My personal prize was his 1985 masterpiece Punks in the Gym, a 5.14a—another first for the climbing world—at Arapiles, Australia. From pictures of the line frozen in my memory, I could recall certain holds and the way Güllich held them. The marbled rock hangs just steeper than vertical, and small razor-sharp crimps dot the smooth orange face. Big moves and scrunchy hand-foot matches lead to easier but pumpy climbing that takes you to the anchor. Donning a thin mustache and short shorts as an ode to Güllich, I was able to tick Punks in 2007. Climbing such a beautiful and historic line meant more to me than any autographed hockey card I had as a kid.

The name Güllich is synonymous with German climbing, a scene that has fostered dozens of cutting-edge climbers with each generation working brutally hard to out-climb the last. Now nearly 25 years after his death, there’s a new climber on the scene repeating all the hardest established routes and putting up a few of his own. Alex Megos, a 23-year-old from Nuremberg, broke onto the scene in early 2013 at the tender age of 19 when he onsighted Estado Critico, a 5.14d in Siurana, Spain, “by accident.” It was the first 9a onsight in history and suddenly, Germany—and the world—had a new climbing hero. With more than a dozen 5.15 sport sends, 5.14 trad, and V15 boulders on his resume, it’s clear that Megos embodies the same passion, drive, and work ethic of Güllich himself.

Megos on Amadeus Schwarzenegger (X-/5.13c). Photo: Andrew Burr

Two years ago at a Patagonia ambassador meeting in Ventura, California, a group of climbers, including hardmen Tommy Caldwell, Josh Wharton, and Japan’s “Jumbo” Yokohama, headed to the local bouldering gym. We had heard about Megos’ utter strength and skill, and as the new kid on the team, we were excited to see what the blonde youngster could do. Alex methodically ticked off the gym’s established problems, all of them first try and many of them in the double-digit range. After cruising everything in the gym, he was clearly bored, so we invited him to climb on our projects—none of us are plastic princes but we were holding our own. Alex examined our projects and said in the stereotypical German way that’s polite but direct: “I think maybe they are too easy.”

“Why not only use one foot then?” one of us offered.

Trotter and Megos mime the beta for a powerful route in the Frankenjura. Photo: Andrew Burr

“Well,” he smiled, “I think maybe this will be too easy as well.” At first we laughed at his audacity, but after he campused the first “project,” we stopped laughing. While the rest of us were fiddling with back-flags, toe hooks, and other sneaky tactics, Alex just squeezed tighter, moved quicker, and cut his feet. It didn’t seem to matter that the terrible pinches were facing in different directions, or that the pocket over the lip was hard to see; Alex had an incomprehensible amount of torque in his shoulders and forearms. We knew he was strong, but this was another level of power and control that none of us had ever witnessed. Within an hour, he went on to campus all of the other projects in the gym. He wasn’t even tired when we left.

Six months later, I was on a plane to Germany to visit my new friend. The goals were: climb in a place I had been dreaming about visiting for nearly 20 years, experience the rich sport climbing history of the Frankenjura, drink coffee, eat cake, and find out once and for all how someone like Alex can get so bloody strong.

Alex gives Mama Megos some love. Photo: Andrew Burr

A few hours after arriving, we pulled up to a wood-trimmed house with a massive green space backyard, located 20 minutes outside of Nuremberg in a quintessentially German neighborhood characterized by manicured lawns, well-constructed homes, red rooftops, and a bakery on every corner. Five ceramic letter tiles decorated the white stucco wall near the front door—MEGOS. Greeted by Alex’s parents and younger sister, who are also climbers, we all sat down for a warm meal of schnitzel (a sort of thin, lightly fried meat), salad, and beer. This would become a common scene in the welcoming Megos household: breakfast and dinners shared, with grandparents and climbers passing through most nights.

Dinner at Casa de Megos, Erlangen, Germany. Photo: Andrew Burr

One night we sat around a backyard fire, and with cold beers in hand, Alex’s father, Jorgos, told us the story of how he began climbing in 1989. While studying to be an engineer at the University in Erlangen, Jorgos had enrolled in a beginner rock climbing program to learn the knots and basic techniques of scrambling and rappelling. Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert, another German legend, were still fairly young in their climbing careers and taught the course as a way to help pay the bills. Now 20 years later, Jorgos’ son is following the same path as two of the greatest rock climbers who ever lived.

An evening by the backyard campfire at the Megos house. Photo: Andrew Burr

Jorgos first took Alex climbing around the Frankenjura when he was just 6 years old, showing him basic skills. When Alex was 10, they climbed multi-pitch routes together during family vacations in France and Switzerland. By age 11, Alex had taken up bouldering semi-seriously (probably the aspect of climbing his father least prefers), and by 13, Alex was working with two of the most progressive climbing coaches in the world, Dicki Korb and Patrick Matros. In 2009 and 2010, Alex won the European Junior Championships in lead, but he was never serious about competing. His heart belonged outdoors.

Megos prepares the backyard grill for dinner. Photo: Andrew Burr

Today, Alex has climbed approximately 15 routes that are 5.15a or higher, redpointing them all in record times. He’s repeated V15 boulders, and climbed some of the hardest big walls in Europe, like the 20-pitch Fly (5.14b) in Switzerland. Although he prefers bouldering and sport climbing, he’s not afraid to get out of his comfort zone once in a while. In summer 2016, he made the world’s first 5.14 gear-protected flash, climbing The Path, a line in Lake Louise, Canada, that involves technical climbing, big runouts, and small cams. He also made a ground-up onsight of The Shining, a 15-pitch 5.13d on Mount Louise in Banff National Park. He had just turned 23.

The thousands of routes at the Frankenjura aren’t all hard. Sonnie Trotter climbs Edelweisskante (VI/5.9) at Rodenstein. Photo: Andrew Burr

“Hey Alex, can you look up?” said photographer Andrew Burr while taking pictures of Megos on a polished 5.13b with one of the worst holds I’ve ever touched.

“I can do whatever you like,” Alex said, dangling off a shallow mono pocket six feet above his last bolt. It wasn’t even a pocket really. It was more like a dimple cleaved into the glassy limestone, but Alex casually looked up for Burr and his camera. Most days that he climbs now someone wants to tag along and take his picture. It doesn’t bother him. “If I’m trying something hard, I’m so focused that I see and hear nothing,” he said later that day. After topping out quite a few 5.14 pitches near Krottenseer Turm, all I wanted was a nice German beer, but Alex wasn’t finished yet. When we returned home every evening, we’d eat dinner then go to the climbing gym for what he called a “proper” session, which included climbing on horrible holds on a 45-degree wall until closing time. It seems climbing multiple 5.14s in a day wasn’t “proper” enough for Alex.

Sonnie gets in a proper training session. Photo: Andrew Burr

The next morning, we hit up a favorite crag of his called The Student in Frankenjura. Since there is nothing hard enough for him to project, he ran laps instead. He went up a 5.14a, down a 5.13c, up the same 5.14a, down the 5.13c, and without touching the ground, he went up the 14a and down the 13c for a third lap, a link-up that I figure must have been around 5.14c/d. That night he spent another two hours in the gym.

This is what separates a talented climber from a legendary one. Alex certainly has a gift to climb, but maybe his greatest genetic strength is not his light body frame, strong fingers, or long legs, but his work ethic. On a daily, weekly, and annual basis, Alex puts more hours into climbing than anyone I have ever met, and he’s been known to climb for more than 20 days in a row.

“My body doesn’t really get tired,” he says about his training. “It’s usually my skin that needs the rest and time to regrow.”

The author recreating a famous Kurt Albert image on Devil’s Crack (V11/5.10c). Photo: Andrew Burr

“OK, so what route is THIS?” I asked Alex, showing him a picture of Kurt Albert hanging ropeless in full lederhosen from one hand, with a beer mug clutched in the other.

“The crag is called Röthelfels,” Megos replied, “and that’s Devil’s Crack.” The image, which appeared in magazines and catalogues around the world, captured Albert’s strength, boldness, and sense of humor, everything the climbing community loved about him. Although he passed away in 2010 in a via ferrata accident, his spirit and legacy are palpable when walking through the lush green forests of the Frankenjura. Albert was known to be a superior climber who trained hard and loved establishing new routes. In the early 1970s, he would paint a red dot, a rotpunkt, on the pocketed limestone next to the name of every new route that he had climbed cleanly—faded red points still mark the rock—so he and his friends could keep a record of which lines had gone free. With this, redpointing became a popular technique and is what many people consider the beginning of the sport climbing movement.

An original rotpunkt (redpoint) placed at the bottom of a route. Photo: Andrew Burr

Before leaving North America, Burr and I were set on recreating the image as a tip of the hat to one of our climbing heroes. When we found Röthelfels, I was surprised by how tall the crag is—at around 80 feet, it was much taller than many of the Frankenjura crags we had seen, which topped out between 30 and 60 feet. I climbed to the overhang where the photo was taken and grabbed the hold. At first glance the jug seemed solid, maybe a bit sharp and uncomfortable, but when I knocked on it, I could feel the vibration underneath the surface and see a hairline fracture running along the outside of it. Albert soloed it, but I wasn’t prepared to take the same risk. Holding the giant mug of beer (which weighed about as much as a large brick) at shoulder height proved to be the hardest part; I had to take a few sips just to lighten the load. Once my feet cut loose, with only one hand on, the beer would slosh from side to side and land on me or the belayer below. When I got pumped, I couldn’t just let go or drop the mug, I had to wait until Burr downclimbed and grabbed the stein. The climb was maybe 5.10+, but getting the shot was definitely 5.12. Although Alex doesn’t drink, he understood our need to pay respect to a man who inspired our climbing youth, and with flip-flops, sunglasses, and a smile, he raised a tall glass of beer to one of his country’s most celebrated hardmen.

A traditional German thermometer. Photo: Andrew Burr

With more than 8,000 routes at 1,000 crags, the Frankenjura can be overwhelming. After a half dozen days of climbing there, we took a break to drink a few pitchers in the famous Bavarian beer gardens, sample Franconian strawberries, and visit Güllich’s final resting place in Obertrubach. Never wanting to stray from climbing for too long, Alex gave me a spray-down on the most famous route in the area: Action Direct (9a/5.14d). Even though it only took him a few tries in a single day, he’s repeated it a handful of times since, and he knows the climb inside and out. Not only does he know his own beta well, but he also knows everyone else’s beta—yet another facet of climbing that sets him apart. Alex is not just a talented athlete, he’s an intelligent one. He can recall thousands of sequences on hundreds of climbs and decipher crux moves without ever touching the holds. Is this years of experience, or pure genius? Probably a bit of both.

The Megos men buy strawberries from a local fruit vendor. Photo: Andrew Burr

Standing below the 30-foot line, I can feel the one- and two-finger pockets digging into my skin. Clean, steep, and dotted with chalk-rimmed bullet holes, it’s the kind of climb that makes people want to be stronger, more powerful athletes. I understood Germany’s obsession with training “proper” power. In the Frankenjura, if you’re not feeling dynamic and explosive, you’ll just get slapped around. There’s no nice way to say it, no easy way to put it, and there’s definitely no fancy way to finesse these moves. You just have to squeeze tighter and pull farther. The thought is that you don’t get stronger by climbing long pumpy routes, you get stronger by climbing shorter more powerful ones. And if you can’t do a route in the Frankenjura, you train harder until you can.

Alex and Sonnie follow in the footsteps (handshakes?) of Kurt Albert and Wolfgang Güllich. Photo: Andrew Burr

“When you’re climbing at your limit, there is nothing soft to reach for,” Güllich once said. “You must make your grip a vice, or forget it.” Alex Megos took those words to heart. There are not many holds out there he can’t latch, and when he trains, he sticks to a few simple rules: no drop-knees, no heel hooks, and no matching hands. And never, under any circumstance, would he use a kneebar, hand jam, or fingerlock. Training is for training and not for sending. You don’t make something easier when you are training, you only make it harder—it’s the German way.

Germany Feature Sonnie Trotter
Trotter finds it a bit harder to find the holds without chalk marking the way on Wer Der Jogend (V111c/5.11a) in Elbsandstein. Photo: Andrew Burr

With plenty of classic Franken pitches under our belts, lots of coffee, cake, beer, and pastries, we loaded Alex’s silver Volkswagen and pointed ourselves northeast to the city of Dresden. This is a beautiful city with a climbing region called Sächsiche Schweiz, meaning “Saxon Switzerland.” Located in a national park, the Saxon region shares its southern border with the Czech Republic and its eastern border with Poland. Saxony is renowned for the intimidating sandstone towers of the Elbsandstein, which translates to Elbe River Sandstone. With more than 17,000 routes on 1,100 freestanding towers, the Saxony climbing region is one of the biggest, oldest, and boldest rock climbing areas in the world. Some of these rock routes are hard, up to 5.13c/d, and others are more than a hundred years old, established by German military troops. But this is no sport climbing area; the Elbsandstein has a strict ground-up ethic. Nuts, cams, and other metal protection are illegal because it deteriorates the soft rock. Top it off with friable holds, and it’s easy to see why this area has broken more than a few bones.

Alex is a great all-around climber, but he doesn’t enjoy the style here. He comes occasionally to visit his mate Felix, a 5.15 climber who studies at Dresden University. Felix’s parents, who are longtime Elbsandstein veterans, welcomed us into their small rural house that was filled with climbing books, pictures, posters, and gear. Seeing the dozen guidebooks spread out in the living room like every other climbing pad in Squamish or Canmore reminded me that climbing is a universal lifestyle.

Alex runs his hands along the license plates at the Wolfsberger Block. Photo: Andrew Burr

Felix and his father, Jens, showed us around as we drove through ancient cityscapes, past old mossy castles, over steel bridges, and through cobblestone tunnels. In every direction, dark sandstone towers pierced through the mist and above the treetops. We wound through a thick forest grove to a parking area, and from there, we walked up through a deep, humid canyon, surrounded by rock walls that reminded me of the Red River Gorge. I asked Jens why there were no routes on them. He explained that climbing on anything that does not have a summit is illegal. You can be fined for climbing in the gorge because there is no tippy top; other fines come from placing metal protection, rap-bolting, using chalk, and climbing within 24 hours of rain. These rules have been set in place by a committee of climbers and park specialists, most of whom are getting old but are determined to preserve the rock and its history.

Alex and Felix wanted to try a steeper, more “modern“ route that went at 5.12. Modern routes tend to have more ring bolts, which are only allowed in Saxony after an application process and committee approval. Placed ground-up, these bolts are often five and 10 meters apart, and without chalk, I was intimidated to tie in.

Weaving through the bushes to the crag. Photo: Andrew Burr

“Come with me,” Jens smirked, “this is where the old men warm up.” Below a beautiful arête, I flaked the rope while Jens, a fit man in his mid-50s, laced up his shoes and tossed a handful of slings over a shoulder. We checked our system, and he began to climb. I spotted him for the first 10 feet, assuming he was about to place a knot, but he climbed higher. My shoulders got pumped, and once he was near the 20-foot mark, I stopped spotting him. Still he climbed higher. At the 30-foot mark, I took him off belay and started taking pictures because there was nothing else I could do. At about 40 or 50 feet up, he finally stopped to place his first piece. Imagine a 4mm cordelette with a single overhand knot that is stuffed into a tight restriction, like a regular nut would be, but given the nature of the protection, the placements are much harder to find. I put him back on belay and hoped for the best.

“Well, it can’t be that hard,” I mumbled to myself. “This is the ‘warm-up’ after all, and he doesn’t even have any chalk.” He placed two more slings during the next 50 feet and ran it out to the anchor. Good lord, I thought, who is this guy? He lowered down, cleaned his slings, and handed me the rack. “How hard is it?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from cracking.

“Approximately 5.11b in Yosemite terms,” he replied.

Knotted slings used for protection in Elbsandstein. Photo: Andrew Burr

I gulped. 5.11b with three slings in over a hundred feet without chalk is not my idea of a warm-up. And you can’t take on a bolt if you’re not feeling it. If one of the slings pops, then you’re looking at 50 to 60 feet of air time. Talk about commitment. I tightened my shoes and tried to stop thinking about it as I pulled on and focused on my breathing. At the 45-foot mark, I found the thread that Jens had placed. The next piece of gear was another thin thread, but it was like lacing up a running shoe with one hand. If I slipped or a hold broke, I had faith that the piece below me would keep me off the ground. The third piece of gear was a ring bolt, a rusted one, but at least it was a bolt. I clipped it happily.

“Relax, you’re doing good,” Jens yelled.

Easy for him to say, I thought, he’s on the ground and he’s done it a dozen times. I climbed to the crux 10 feet above the ring. It felt hard. I reached for my chalkbag, but it wasn’t there. I patted my fingers onto my pants, hoping they would absorb some sweat. They didn’t. My heart raced. I downclimbed a few feet to a better hold and shook out my arms. Knowing I couldn’t rest forever, I went back up. I overgripped every hold, like the easier terrain at the end of a hard sport climb when you don’t want to blow the send. I squeezed juice from each slippery pinch, small crimp, and shallow pocket. I put in a 5.13b effort on a 5.11b warm-up, clawing my way to the anchor. Scared and pumped, I had forgotten how to climb properly. It wasn’t until I clipped the anchor that I finally released the air from my lungs. As I took a moment to relax, I realized just how much fun I was having, how alive I felt, and how majestic our surroundings were, especially since we were the only ones at the crag.

Towers of the Elbsandstein. Photo: Andrew Burr

Despite being an incredible destination, the Elbsandstein lost its popularity years ago. Many of the testpiece climbs have been done, and most of the younger generation want to climb hard (not bold) new routes, so they opt for places like Spain, France, and Switzerland. The only way to push the standard in Dresden is to actually risk your life, something today’s rock stars are not always prepared to do. Alex loves climbing as hard as he can, and he can climb harder than most people ever dream of, but he has little interest in climbing easier but more dangerous routes.

Over the next couple of days, we bagged a few more exhilarating climbs, but my willpower was weakening. It takes a lot of mental stoke to tie in before every pitch in the Elbsandstein, because every time you leave the ground, there is a decent chance you might slip or break a hold, and crash without a single sling or ring bolt clipped. It’s a place you want your head screwed on tight.

Alex Megos climbs Talseite (V/5.7), Wolfsberger Block, Frankenjura. Photo: Andrew Burr

On our last night, we drank wine and sat around the kitchen table like a big family, telling stories and sharing climbing plans. I wondered if Megos wanted to return to North America and try more of the great unrepeated testpieces, like Güllich did. In 1982, Wolfgang spent an exhausting week making the coveted second ascent of Grand Illusion (5.13b/c), in Sugarloaf, California, possibly the hardest climb in the world at that time. Megos has already done hard lines such as The Fly (5.14d) in Rumney, New Hampshire, and Lucid Dreaming (V15) in Bishop, California, but what inspires him remains a bit of a mystery. Unlike some climbers who are happy to climb on anything as long as it’s hard, Alex only wants to climb on things that are good. He gets easily turned off by climbs that are chipped, chossy, or full of trickery, like kneebars and heel hooks. But only Alex knows what’s next.

We said our goodbyes the next day, and I boarded a plane for home. I looked out my window over the thick rolling forests below and felt inspired again to be a bolder, more powerful climber. I was already looking forward to returning, but not without a bit more preparation first. I needed a year’s worth of “proper” training sessions. So many people want to know what Alex’s secret is. I don’t think it’s a secret at all; it is simply a way of life. You don’t become the best in the world by sitting on your ass. You get up and go climbing on the hardest lines you can find—all day, every day.

Paying respects at Güllich’s final resting place. Photo: Andrew Burr

Germany Climbing Beta

Getting there and transportation

Fly to either Nuremberg or Munich airport and rent a car. Nuremberg is an hour’s drive away; Munich is about 2.5 hours. You’ll need a car, since the Frankenjura is home to more than 1,000 limestone crags spread out over nearly 3,000 forested square miles.

When to go

“Generally there is no perfect season in the FJ,” pro climber and local Alex Megos says. “It can always be good, and it can always be bad.” Autumn and spring offer the best conditions, provided it’s not raining. Winter is chilly for the fair-weather climber, and the summer can be hot, but the forest is full of shady crags.

Where to stay

“We have many little valleys, which are packed with hundreds of rocks and routes. There is no specific place to stay,” local climber and photographer Frank Kretschmann says. “Climbers stay at campgrounds all over the place, or take a room close to their project.” Oma Eichler in Obertrubach is cheap and an easy place to meet other climbers, and there are homemade cakes from the owner. The Fischer campground in Betzenstein also has a guesthouse and food. If you’re looking for a hostel, check out the Intensivstation in Tüchersfeld for guest rooms, cabins, and meals.

Where to climb

“Every climber coming to the FJ should do the pilgrimage to Action Direct just to see it,” Megos says, referring to Wolfgang Güllich’s famous route, the world’s first 5.14d. Krottenseer Turn and Gössweinsteiner Wande are must-visit crags, with plenty of routes of varying grades. Locals recommend guidebooks by Sebastian Schwertner.

What and where to eat

Try classic dishes such as schweinshaxen (roasted pork knuckle), schäuferle (pig shoulder), bratwurst with sauerkraut, and schnitzel. “Anywhere in the FJ there is great and cheap food. Just go to any local restaurant in the small villages and pick anything from the menu,” Megos says. Meat is central to the German diet; salad with bacon or chicken is not considered meat. If you’re vegetarian, non-local cuisine, such as Italian or Asian, will have more options. Look for signs saying Gaststätte and Wirtshaus (restaurant). Megos adds, “If you like beer, prepare to drink lots of it, because it’s super cheap and really, really good.”

Best rest day

FJ offers excellent hiking, biking, canoeing, and caving. If you want to cool off, every big village and city has a swimming pool. Head to Nuremberg or Bamberg for museums, cinemas, and nightlife.

Don’t forget

A rain jacket, since weather varies (November is especially rainy).

Insider tips

Most routes are about 60 feet with a bouldery style, so long, thin ropes will get destroyed. “Don’t try routes with tags in the first bolt,” Megos warns. “Those routes are projects, and trying projects in the FJ is a no go.”